So I've procrastinated this blog post. I wasn't ever going to give negative reviews on my blog. Because I'm not a critic by trade, I didn't see any reason to be negative - much nicer to just present things that I like. But then I took a Theater Appreciation class and we went to see a local production of Precious Little, by Madeleine George.
Now, our class has seen a couple other plays I didn't enjoy, but whatever - not a critic. But this one made me mad. I cannot in good conscience say nothing.
Precious Little is the story of Brodie, a linguistics professor. Brodie is a lesbian, and has decided, at age 42, that she wants to have a baby. The play opens with her already pregnant, and after a brief scene involving a gorilla at the zoo (who we revisit at various times throughout the play), we find Brodie talking to a young counselor (Rhiannon) about getting an amniocentesis test to check the baby for genetic disorders.
As the play progresses, we learn that Brodie is dating one of her graduate students (which is not actually forbidden in the faculty handbook, just discouraged). She is also beginning to record an elderly lady who is a native speaker of a quickly-dying language. When Brodie finds out there is a chance her baby may be mentally impaired, she wrestles with the decision of whether or not to abort. The ending of the play is abstract - a one-sided conversation with the gorilla at the zoo - but strongly implies that she does decide to abort the baby.
Brace yourselves, because this is going to be long and blunt.
Production-wise, it was well done. The actors all did a good job, the set design was effective. Sound and lighting went off with only one minor hitch. Costumes were good. I'd give it a 4 for production value. The play itself, on the other hand...
One of the problems with this play is that it's actually pretty well-written. I mean the dialogue is, for the most part, good. The story is engaging. The characters are consistent. The problem is the content and the way it's presented.
The play is billed as being about language and how we communicate. The description on Amazon ends by stating that it "reveals the beauty and the limits of the human language." Portland's Defunkt Theater, where we saw it, quotes the playwright herself as saying that it is "about the limits but also the luxuries of language, about what we cherish about our uniquely human capacity for language as well as what it costs us to communicate in this way."
Well, I have no problem with a play about language. And I enjoyed the scenes wherein Brodie was recording the elderly woman - it reminded me of some of my brother's early linguistic projects.
But that is NOT what this play is about.
My first clue was when the man introducing the play mentioned Planned Parenthood as one of the sponsors, and said representatives would be there at a later performance for a 'talk back' after the show. Combined with what little I knew about the play already, the red flags went up. I figured I was about to see a pro-abortion story, and I was right. Although I myself am pro-life, I'll admit I wasn't too terribly worried; I hear the pro-abortion message all the time. It's everywhere. I felt prepared for that. What I was not prepared for was the anti-disabled people through-line.
So there's this gorilla at the zoo. It's advertised as the talking gorilla - supposedly it has a limited vocabulary and can 'communicate' through that handful of words. We see the gorilla (played by an actor) at the zoo. It's in a cage. It doesn't actually know language - it only associates those few words with light-up symbols in its cage, and it can't actually communicate. If you press the word 'jump', a shape is supposed to light up, which the gorilla recognizes as a command to jump. Theoretically, the gorilla will do so. Only it doesn't.
Throughout the play, any time we see the gorilla, it is unresponsive to the stimuli. We see it through a haze of chatter - children, parents, teenagers - everyone at the zoo passing by trying to get the gorilla to jump through hoops for them. The gorilla is clearly not into it. It is trapped and tortured by people asking it to do what it is unable to understand. Guess who the gorilla in the zoo symbolizes? Yeah. The mentally disabled. That becomes pretty clear as the play goes on.
Getting mad yet?
Let's move on. Let's go back to Rhiannon, the young counselor. She's new, just finishing her training. She's a little too exuberant - she's painted immature. She's also portrayed as insensitive and prejudiced, just a little too startled when she learns that Brodie is a lesbian. It's all fairly subtle (as I said, the play is more or less well-written - what a shame), but it's definitely there. She's ditsy. She appears to talk down to Brodie when explaining medical things. She's also unprofessional - she tells Brodie the gender of the baby when she's not supposed to unless the patient asks. She's also the only person in the entire play to suggest alternatives to abortion. Coincidence?
Here's another thing that's disturbing: Upon learning the gender of the baby, Brodie begins to think of her as a 'child' rather than a 'fetus'. This is primarily why she struggles with the idea of aborting the baby. In the end, she decides to abort (again, this is implied abstractly, but it's pretty clear), and the suggestion is that this is totally ok. Even if you consider the baby to be an actual human. So abortion is fine whether you maintain that the unborn baby is just a 'thing', or acknowledge that these are, in fact, actual children.
Here's another one: The old lady being recorded speaking the dying language. Brodie makes a lovely case for preserving the language - think what we can learn from it! - in the worst-written segment of dialogue in the play. She gets a little carried away. The woman's daughter is concerned for her mother's well-being, trying to make sure she doesn't over-tax herself, etc. In the end, speaking this language for the first time in decades brings up a whole bunch of childhood memories, some good and some bad. Apparently the bad outweigh the good - or at least the daughter thinks so. She won't be bringing her mother back for any more recording sessions, and makes the argument that some things aren't meant to be, and that maybe some things are meant to die out. I hope I don't need to point out the implications (especially for disabled people, since this is the whole reason Brodie is thinking of getting an abortion in the first place) at this point.
By the way, not that it really matters in the face of all that, but Brodie doesn't even know if the baby will actually be disabled. She may not be. And if she is, there is no way of telling how much - could be super mild, could be severe. But why take the risk, right? The implication is that if there's even a chance your baby could be disabled, abortion is an appropriate course of action. No wonder it's the assumed path if you know your child will be disabled.
There is one moment in the play, where the balance seems to be tipping in the baby's favor. Brodie is thinking of her as a her - as a child. Her girlfriend is trying to 'talk sense' into her, to convince her to go through with the abortion. The girlfriend actually sounds cold and selfish. Brodie reacts against that and breaks up with her (don't worry - she's still welcome to help transcribe those recordings...). Ironically, this only strengthens the argument for abortion - it allows the playwright to paint Brodie, the one actually making the decision, as a compassionate, selfless woman (in comarison, you see?). Through her, everyone is able to feel justified and good about themselves when making a similar decision.
Finally, the play ends with the suggestion that Brodie will abort. She reveals this through a 'conversation' with the gorilla at the zoo. She is at peace with her decision, and the ending note of the play is hopeful, suggesting that this is the correct and most humane course of action for both the baby and her. The play ends with the conversation. We never see the aftermath. We never see whether Brodie ever regrets that decision. And we certainly never see the child's denied life. All we see is the hope and peace of a good decision. How convenient.
So. Here we have a play. It's deceptive, presenting itself as being about language when it's really about how abortion is a good idea for (potentially) disabled babies. It's manipulative, creating abstract symbols (the gorilla and the old woman) and caricatures (Rhiannon) that set the audience up to sympathize with a woman having an abortion because, heaven forbid, the child might never learn to speak. And it's insulting, comparing mentally disabled people with animals.
Needless to say, I found it repulsive and offensive and disgusting and horrifying. What on earth are we doing?
I'm not even going to give this a rating.